ALLIGATORS IN A HELICOPTER

a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Commentary Tracks

So as I mentioned a few weeks ago, I've been doing some DVD reviews for a website, in exchange for free DVDs.

It's sort of an experiment on my part. I've found that my movie-watching is down a lot, and I wanted to be forced to watch a wide swath of movies, the good stuff along with the bad.

A wide swath it is indeed.

One thing I'm amused by are commentary tracks. I watched a few decidedly-mediocre films in the past week, in which the director does a commentary track, and just once I'd like them to talk about why their vision didn't result in a film that actually works. Of course, they never do; most of them just spend their time praising the actors and the crew. Few of them offer anything that is intructive to any aspiring writers or directors.

So I want to know where the bar is. What's your favorite commentary track? The most entertaining? The most informative? The most honest?

Let me know where the bar should be set, because none of the ones I've listened to recently set the bar very high (and though I have a ton of DVDs of movies I like, many with commentaries, most of them I've never found the time to listen to).

39 Comments:

At 11:45 AM, Anonymous Ron said...

The commentary track to "Elizabeth" is really quite fantastic. It's more about how his approaches directing than anything about writing, but it's educational.

 
At 11:45 AM, Anonymous Aaron said...

One of the better commentary tracks I've listen to was the David Koepp commentary for Panic Room because William Goldman sits in and he makes some great observations. It's one of the few good commentaries with screenwriters.

And the best commentary I've probably ever listen to is the Soderberg/Dobbs commentary on The Limey because you listen as the two bicker about choices Soderbergh made as a director.

 
At 11:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You could try those by director Doug Liman (Swingers, Go, The Bourne Identity). His commentary on Mr. and Mrs. Smith was pretty bland but usually he combines a good mix of anecdotes and technical background.

Or if you want a commentary where a producer completely rubbishes his own work, you could try Mark Gordon on Speed and The Day After Tomorrow.

 
At 11:54 AM, Anonymous Peter G. said...

I've listened to comparatively very few....I enjoyed the commentary on SUPERMAN with Dick Donner and Tom Mankewicz.

Also Elliot & Rossio's commentary on the first PIRATES film...definitely worth a listen.

 
At 11:56 AM, Blogger Dave Olden said...

Nicholas Meyer's commentary on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

He's very articulate, and informative. Pretty much continuous from the opening ("I've been writing, since I was 3 years old...") until the end credits.

He covers story (leading a note session with Harve Bennett and Jack Sowards on what things they wanted to see in the story...); extracting performances from his leads... why he isn't into "resurrection" stories, and felt the seeds planted (not by him) cheated the audience of an honest death.

Lots of stuff.

My laptop allows DVD bookmarking, and this DVD has, oh, at least 25 points in Meyer's commentary indexed.

 
At 12:05 PM, Blogger Dave Olden said...

Oh, and I'm fully with Peter G. on both the Donner/Mankewicz commentary on SUPERMAN, and Elliot & Rossio on the writers' commentary track on PIRATES.

 
At 12:37 PM, Blogger Ernest said...

Alexander Payne's commentary on Election is wonderful. Really missed his commentary on Sideways, because Giamatti and Church don't have much to say.

 
At 12:46 PM, Anonymous Joe Valdez said...

The 2-disc version of Boogie Nights is tremendous. Paul Thomas Anderson starts off by saying he's a guy who stole a lot by listening to laserdisc commentaries, and talks non-stop about his experience making the picture. It's loaded with deleted scenes, extended takes and a music video for Michael Penn that will give you something to do for four hours.

Martin Scorsese starts at the beginning, with how the book or script came to him, and why he thought he could make something out of it. A lot of guys think their commentary should be devoted to their shot selection, but Scorsese isn't interested in the "how" so much as the "why". Why certain characters or situations resonated with his life. He goes off on tangents about film - classic film, foreign film - that inspired him, so I get a lot of good rental ideas. And he talks non-stop, which is how all good commentary tracks should be.

In terms of fun, you can't beat John Carpenter & Kurt Russell drinking, smoking and talking Escape From New York and The Thing. They seem to enjoy how well those movies have aged, in spite of what was written about them at the time, and have a blast talking about making them.

 
At 1:11 PM, Anonymous bianca said...

If you want a commentary track by a screenwriter who talks about why his vision of the film didn't come to pass try Dean Georgaris on Tristan and Isolde. He's very open and honest on that one. I also recommend Shakur Kapoor's track on Elizabeth as well.

 
At 2:03 PM, Blogger Sean said...

The commentary on Evil Dead II is a blast... Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, co-writer Scott Spiegel, and makeup artist Greg Nicotero relish -- and make the audience relish with them -- every continuity error, every gag, every brilliantly executed moment of gore in the film. It's also an interesting insight into producing a film with relatively little budget, and creating a work of art in the haphazard and energetic way they did.

A very informative commentary on just how many different details need to come together for a film to work can be heard on the commentary for Weird Al Yankovic's UHF, wherein he rattles off addresses of virtually every set and filming location.

 
At 2:10 PM, Anonymous pd boy said...

Fight Club

 
At 2:55 PM, Blogger Emily Blake said...

I like two, but they're both in TV. Joss Whedon always does amazing commentaries. He's really metaphysical about the whole thing. I've learned a lot about camera angles by listening to him explain why he did what he did.

There's an interesting commentary for the Farscape episode, "Jeremiah Chriton" where some cast and crew sit around explaining why the episode is so terrible. It's a good study in what not to do on an otherwise brilliant show.

 
At 3:46 PM, Blogger Webs said...

If I can go outside the box, I recommend the "Futurama" commentaries. Not so much for craft, although there is discussion of that, but because it's often as funny as the show itself.

 
At 5:31 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

I've found that The Office Season 2 commentaries are pretty funny too, even if Steve Carell was off making a movie.

 
At 8:28 PM, Blogger glassblowerscat said...

For my money, it's almost always Robert Rodriguez. In particular, his commentary for Spy Kids 2 is a great blend of anecdote, insider information, insights on directing the actors, and advice to young filmmakers. Desperado also had great commentary.

Other than that, I thought Love Actually had great commentary

 
At 10:20 PM, Blogger James said...

Both the commentaries on LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE are terrific.

I like a lot of James Cameron's commentaries. T2 and ALIENS are great. He takes a more... this is how the film was made approach. Breaking down the "magic" behind what you're seeing on screen.

ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND - This is not really a good commentary per se... But it is very interesting. Charlie Kaufman is asking questions of Michele Gondry on how to direct because he wants to direct. Basically it is as if a fan was there interviewing Gondry on his direction. The plus is that it is the writer. And a zany writer at that.

I, ROBOT - is an example of a pretty bad commentary track. The line that cracks me up... is when the director says "We were going for a documentary feel." Really? That 360 degree revolving shot done at like 80 times normal speed with a greenscreen background? Documentary style? I, Robot is one of the slickest looking Hollywood movies that's been put out in recent years.

Kevin Smith movies - These are a class all to themselves. They are great. And they are worthless. And the best part is that from movie to movie they seem to be the exact same track. Kevin Smith + cast get together to drink and talk sh!t, while Jason Mewes passes out about halfway through the film. It's actually pretty damn funny.

 
At 10:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought I learned alot about movie making in general when I listened to Mel Gibson's commentary on Braveheart.

Highly recommended.

 
At 12:40 AM, Blogger Formerly, The Dude Spoke said...

I love the Kevin Smith commentaries. I don't believe I've watched Mallrats without the commentary in a long time.

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy is quite possibly one of the finest bits of comedy produced. It has a part where Kyle Gass and Andy Richter show up, upset that they weren't asked to be in the movie, and it ends with Will Ferrell getting punched in the nose. Then they get Lou Rawls to show up, just because they like his voice. (Even though he never saw the film).

Michael Mann commentaries are full of useful information.

As far as someone admitting the film isn't their vision, I have to recommend a film called "House of the Dead", which is quite possibly the worst film I have ever seen. It has two commentary tracks, one with the director (Uwe Boll, the modern day Ed Wood), some producers and an actor, but it's all Uwe talking about how great a film it is. The other commentary track is the screenwriter/producer by himself, talking about the changes that were made from his original script. And you can hear the frustration in his voice, but he does a lot of back slapping and ass kissing instead of expressing his rage.

And I've heard the Batman and Robin commentary is just one big apology from Joel Schumacher, including the quote "That shot was to sell toys"

 
At 4:45 AM, Anonymous Jacob said...

John Frankenheimer's commentaries were always good. I especially recommend RONIN and THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE.

I agree that the commentary on the first PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN is great. I would note, though, that's it's not just Elliot & Rossio who comentate; Stuart Beatty and Jay Wolpert, the other credited screenwriters, are there as well.

 
At 9:06 AM, Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

i thoroughly enjoyed the commentary tracks by joss whedon too. i also found the mel gibson tracks to be informative in a "this is how you make a crap movie that will kill at the box office" sense.

i wish john williams would do a commentary about writing and arranging his "star wars" soundtracks (i worked on most of them). he is a true genius at that discrete art.

 
At 10:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just listened to the commentary on "Saints and Soldiers." It's interesting for the perspective of what low budget directors/producers/writers go through when trying to put together and film a low budget film thaat was eventually picked up for (limited) distribution.
The movie, unfortunateely, was also limited.

 
At 2:22 AM, Anonymous Peter G. said...

Thanks for the correction, Jacob!

You're right, all FOUR credited writers are on the writer commentary track for POTC: TCOTBP.

Elliot and Rossio are together, Beattie and Wolpert are by themselves. The bulk is E&R with the other two liberally cut in throughout.

 
At 6:50 AM, Blogger marc bernardin said...

The track on THIS IS SPINAL TAP, with McKean, Shearer, and Guest in bloody character is worth the disc's weight in gold. High-larious.

 
At 9:02 AM, Anonymous Reagan said...

I had a friend who listened to the commentary track for Alien vs. Predator and said the director got a cellphone call and talked with his daughter in the middle of the commentary.

Of course my friend is probably the only person in the world to listen to the commentary for Alien vs. Predator.

 
At 11:14 AM, Blogger Joshua Grover-David Patterson said...

I am shocked (very) that no one has mentioned Cannibal: The Musical. It’s often noted just because the folks who made it sat and got drunk through the whole commentary, but it really is pretty informative – why they did certain jokes, how certain things were shot (one scene of four different people talking to each other was actually shot in four different locations) and where the money came from.

Beware the five-minute gap in the middle where they get so hammered they actually turn off the recorder. It does come back on.

A couple of people here mention Joss Whedon, and yeah, I actually learned quite a lot listening to his commentary on Buffy S1 Ep 1 and Ep 2. He’s very honest about changes they made after the first episode, things that are kind of silly in the show (And now, Willow does something with the computer that no one could ever do in real life…) and when certain story points just aren’t important.

Also, his commentary on the Firefly episode… um… I think it’s Objects in Space – the one with the bounty hunter, is really fascinating. He discusses the philosophy of the episode. Never really heard that before.

I’ve never heard a bad Robert Rodriguez commentary, though I haven’t listened to the Sin City one yet. In particular, I have a lot of love for his commentary on El Mariachi, where he details how he did pretty much everything.

The guy’s DVDs just make me want to go out and create something.

I also like the commentary he did with Tarantino on From Dusk Till Dawn.

The in-character Spinal Tap commentary is almost a better movie than Spinal Tap is.

And yeah, pretty much any commentary with Carpenter is, at the very least, entertaining, even if you don’t learn a whole lot.

 
At 11:47 AM, Blogger Jeff said...

I think it was already mentioned but one can't say enough about PTAnderson's Boogie Nights commentary. It does exactly what a commentary track should do: exhilarate you about the magic of movies.

Overall, though, I find most commentary tracks infuriating ego-fests.

 
At 2:06 PM, Anonymous Mr. Peel said...

In the commentary for Dragonfly, director Tom Shadyac never quite comes out and says he made a bad film, but he comes pretty darned close. He spends a lot of time analyzing the story and what went wrong with it. Not a good movie, but a very interesting commentary.

Maybe my two favorite commentaries: Mike Nichols & Steven Soderbergh on Catch-22 and Stanley Donen & Peter Stone on Charade.

 
At 8:44 AM, Blogger Scribe LA said...

Hey Scott,
Great topic...
Personally I found the commentary that Ed Burns did for The Brothers McMullen to be top notch.

Reversely, I watched the commentary for Kingpin (que joke) looking for some insight into the Farrelly brothers' comedy making skills, but it's bascially an hour and a half of them pointing out their friends in the cast or saying how wonderful a person was/is.

Also completely worthy are the commentaries for Fight Club, like has already been mentioned.
Scribe

 
At 8:57 AM, Blogger Lucy said...

It's been a while since I watched a commentary, but I think the one to PITCH BLACK is okay, if only for the fact someone flags up a really bad shot and takes the piss out of who did it which they had to keep because of time constraints. Always funny.

 
At 12:57 AM, Blogger Good Dog said...

I can't believe anyone hasn't mentioned any of Ridley Scott's commentaries. Especially The Duellists and Thelma and Louise. Very entertaining and very informative.

 
At 11:34 PM, Blogger James said...

Also...

Ted and Terry's commentary on PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN 2.

This commentary is truly unique.

The writers of a movie ...

1) that the crictics were a little harsh on.
2) a movie that grossed a TON of money.
3) A fan favorite.
4) And a structurely lopsided screenplay, that made a great blockbuster.

The uniqueness comes from the fact that the commentary is RESPONDING to the critics. Points out plot points. Things that were "holes." What was going through their minds as they wrote it. Etc.

In general good stuff, if you're a screenwriter.

 
At 12:25 PM, Blogger James said...

Domino has the regular commentary track, but it also has one that I’ve never come across before.

They recorded script meetings between Director, Writer, Producers (during pre-prod) and converted this into scene-specific commentary.

It’s an inside look at the development process.

And you get to hear the writer arguing for a scene and losing. But the scene ultimately is in the final movie, so they must have come around to his way of thinking.

I found this track very interesting, at the least.


I also found Robert Towne’s commentary on Ask The Dust informative, as well.

 
At 8:20 AM, Blogger Bill Cunningham said...

PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN has 2 screenwriter commentary tracks, a producer track and a director track.

Watch all of the DEAD ZONE and MI5 disc sets. The commentaries and behind-the-scenes features (including breaking a script in the the DZ writer's room) are great. MI5 has many great interviews with the writers on how they establish tone and how brit writers fit into their system over there.

I would also recommend LIFE ON MARS and HUSTLE from the same production company - Kudos. They too have great writer-production oriented features.

For low budget minded folks, listen to Carpenter's commentary on the original ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. Very process oriented with lots of great advice.

 
At 10:54 AM, Blogger Brent said...

The best I've ever heard on a pure film appreciation level would have to be Peter Bogdanovich and Roger Ebert on Citizen Kane. Both explain moment by moment what makes that film so innovative and unique. In the past, Ebert has given many lectures breaking down Citizen Kane shot by shot, and his thorough knowledge of the film's history and making is simply wonderful. You'll appreciate the film even more after listening to the commentaries. Honestly, it is the most enjoyable and insightful commentary I have ever heard.

 
At 11:19 AM, Blogger tgrrlily said...

yep, it's all about the Rodriguez & the Whedon...

plus, for rom com lessons, try:

Wes Anderson
Cameron Crowe
Nora Ephron
Gary Marshall (really)

 
At 11:32 AM, Blogger David Bishop said...

It's TV, not film, and a DVD extra rather than a yak track, but the documentary on The Shield's Season 3 set that show's you how they broke the final episode in the writers' room - plot by plot, beat by beat - is absolutely fascinating.

 
At 7:54 PM, Blogger Gina said...

Robert Altman's commentary on Gosford Park was very interesting, also Lars Von Triers Dancer in the Dark. I was really facinated by the Eternal Sunshine commentary - it dealt a lot with the metamorphosis from script to film. To the person who mentioned Charade - which version is the commentary on? I'm dying to hear it.

 
At 5:06 PM, Blogger jacqueline said...

Any film by Guillermo del Toro, is great for his sheer enthusiasm alone, but listening to him point out how one of the vampires in Blade 2 looked like Michael Bolton was priceless...

 
At 9:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just finished the commentary to "A History of Violence", and it's like attending a Cronenberg Master Class. He's concise, insightful, and gives credit where credit's due without getting sycophantic. Highly recommended

 

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